At first the boats, and the canals from which they came, seemed like another set of enormous artefacts; but gradually I came to understand that I had bitten off far more than I could ever hope to chew. I began to know some of the backwaters and peculiar names, the language and above all the people of the canals. In short, I fell in love.
Since then, I have travelled from the T&M to the K&A, boated on the Nene and the Severn, bumped into banks from Bugsworth Basin to Honeystreet Wharf. After twelve years, I am a raw beginner still. I fall somewhere between (on the one hand) the 'gongoozler' who watches boaters manoeuvring from the safety of a bridge with pint in hand, and (on the other) the born-and-bred boatmen, steerers of the working boats, who make the tiller look like an extension of their own arm. I may not be the most skilled of skippers, but I am serving my time in the narrow apprenticeship of the English canal system.
Nowadays, I work in poetry - writing it, helping others to write it, and above all bringing it to the attention of people who don't normally choose to read new poetry. So the Locklines project, which puts contemporary poetry on canal lock gates, was a humbling opportunity for me. The artist Peter Coates has taken from two of my poems, the lines
straightened, straitened, boxed and sluiced and
the slow machine that England was
to go on lock gates at Milnsbridge, near Huddersfield, and I am more moved than I can say to see this picture of them being hoisted into place by CRT banksmen - thanks to Simon Henry and his team for this image.
'Straitened' of course, means 'narrowed' or in this case, canalised. My poem, which I will soon be recording for you to hear on the Soundcloud website, is an attempt to pay my respects to the timeless, elegant engineering that used water - that most effortless of mediums, that hardest of materials to manage - to create a great working path through the British landscape. I love these waterways, and I hope that my poem, together with those of Roy Fisher and Ian McMillan, will help others who aren't familiar with them, to see them as spaces of wonder and beauty, as well as of a long working tradition.