Wednesday, 7 April 2010


She stood on the bridge and watched the slow churning green-grey sludge below. The spring sunlight tickled at her neck; it broke across the clear sky and dappled amongst the damp on her cheeks. The road behind her was empty save for the chirruping of dawdling blackbirds, idly scrounging for food. The knot in her stomach twisted as she clambered up onto the bridge wall, the concrete grazing against her teenage shin as she went. She climbed up high, to where the bridge reached its tallest point above where the water was known to be its deepest blackest.

And she stepped forward.

The plunge into the depths winded her; the impact forced her mouth open and the water flooded into her lungs. Perhaps, like Virginia Woolf, she had laced her pockets with stones, perhaps she relied on the suction of the grey muck at the canal’s base to hold her steady in its vice. And as the grit and grime filled her, pushing the oxygen out, as her long blonde hair flayed out in the murk like a shoal of sea snakes, as her eyes rolled backwards in their sockets to the rhythmic pounding along her skull, and her guts swelled to bursting point her mind became as clear and as free as the stretched blue sky, the last glint of which pushed at the distant surface high above her sunken head.

And less than a week later, in exactly the same spot, her Father followed her down, down to the emptiness of eternity.

Eighty odd years later I stood as the clouds gathered up ahead, swirling through greys and black and reflecting deep in the heart of the canal and our hidden hearts. Behind me traffic thundered in either direction a pounding grumble of inevitability. I stood and looked down into the blackened waters and thought about whisky and words and love and all the others things that mattered.

I looked down at my parents’ dog. She looked back up at me, her outsized ears flattened with puzzlement and then tugged, impatiently, towards the path, not realising that I was lost amongst ghosts.

‘Yeah, all right,’ I muttered and started to walk down the canal’s towpath.

Canals. In the West Midlands, they’re impossible to escape. They hang around the consciousness of those who grow up there like a smelly mini-disc player. That is, to say, that fleetingly they were the next big thing and then something slinkier, sexier came along and rendered them obsolete.

Actually, the analogy doesn’t quite work. Canals were around longer than eighteen months. Their use and spread may have rapidly increased when the workers flogged to the new metropolitan centres to do mechanised work with textiles and steel and paper and all the other bulwarks of the industrial revolution, but they had already been the bedrock of quick, cheap, speedy transportation across Europe for a millennium.

The industrial spark that lit the fires beneath Birmingham, Manchester, St Helens, Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn, Sunderland and a hundred other northern and midland names applied the same vigour to thwacking out great globules of mud from the land and flushing what would become stagnant water along them. The image of the shirehorse steadily plodding along the towpath, dragging a narrowboat slowly in its wake whilst jauntily capped and open shirted workers dozed on the flat roof in the summer warmth is straight out of the eighteenth century and yet here we are in the twenty-first.

We get a little obsessed by transport, here in the present, don’t we? Perhaps it’s from the claustrophobia of our tiny island right in the northern tip of the world, the innate knowledge that it’s never going to be that far, so why is it taking so long?

After many years of knuckle cracking frustration, I’ve finally started to become almost serene in my approach to transport. London seems to have, eventually, beaten all the impatience out of me. I’m now fully resigned to the fact that it’ll take however long it takes – although, equally, I’m rarely in as much of a rush as I once was. There appears to be more important things to get anxious over than a few minutes here or a couple of moments there.

And occasionally, everything works just beautifully anyway. As I left London for the bank holiday weekend, early on the Friday morning, the traffic radio reports cut through my enjoyment of Jimi Hendrix.

‘Still looking pretty quiet out there on the roads for you this Good Friday.’ I couldn’t even get irate at the inevitable focus around access to the big shopping centres encircling the city, Westfields, Lakeside, Bluewater. Making such good time, I allowed myself a diversion cross-country and outside Bicester found myself trapped in a queue for mid-end fashion retail park. I did all I could, which was to wind down the window, turn Jimi up and contentedly tap my fingers along the dashboard and resist the urge to startle pedestrians with my singing.

When I returned to London, on the bank holiday Monday morning, the roads were once again quiet. The city felt almost abandoned as I headed over to coffee in Hampstead. ‘Where has everyone gone?’ I wondered aloud.

I paused at a junction in Kilburn and spotted a Liberal Democrat election battle bus hidden down a side alley, a flight crew scuttling around loading it up with satellite dishes and anonymous grey boxes. There was no sign of a film crew or any of Cleggy, Compo or Foggy so what were they doing there? Was that just where it was stored, parked up, blocking the entrances to some West London lock-ups, ready to roll when the call came out to war?

Was that what everyone was doing? Waiting?

‘Don’t be fucking, stupid,’ I muttered. ‘They’re just living their lives rather than trying to concoct a point out of nothing.’

I overtook the dog along the canal and walked on past, my hands tucked into the pockets of my leather jacket, the lead wrapped around my wrist. I walked until it extended no further, until I was anchored, then I stood and look down into the waters.

My Dad fell into the canal when I was a kid. Somewhere, down there, his glasses still rot like memory degrading through age.

‘Come on,’ I said.

The dog’s head appeared out the bush where she’d been foraging for smells that had passed hours earlier. She looked at me and then went back to her business. Clearly, I could wait my turn.

Transport even managed to dominate Good Ol’Gordie Brown’s latest cock it up.

This pointlessly amateur election poster mocking Cameron as Gene Hunt of Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes fame backfired spectacularly over the Easter break. There are some who watch those programmes as the outdated protagonist thumps, fucks and abuses his way through some slightly comical crime and wryly note how wonderful it is that people are no longer allowed to behave with such casual racism, sexism, violence and disregard for formal processes, but then there’s a lot of people who equally think “cool, fast cars, guns, drinking a lot, smoking and saying what you think! Now, those were the days!”

Out of touch as well as out of date, perhaps. Whichever, it made it rather easy for the toffs to come back with their aching attempt to appeal to normality.

Mind you, whilst we’re parodying election posters...

Still, despite my recently found calmness, I was glad that the rail strike had been called off. I did not find my commute into work diverted via over-packed buses filled to the brim with disgruntled workers. I felt glad not to be flying British Airways anytime soon as cabin crews continue to protest by manning the pickets. But then I catch myself being irrationally irritated again and stop.

I should be on the strikers’ side, shouldn’t I? And not just because of my more leftist ideals, but because so should everyone who’s ever rung a call centre and become annoyed at the never ending pre-recorded messages refusing to acknowledge that you’ve already pressed two seventeen times. Everyone who’s ever thought that an organisation, from the local post office to an accident and emergency ward, from your bank to the train stations, needed more, not less, people should support those trying to save their jobs from automation.

Shouldn’t they?

But things change, they don’t last. Even the canals were swallowed up by the new. The steam trains that would capture the imaginations of a dozen generations of small boys before dreams of red hot coals being shovelled across a footplate were in turn eaten up by jet packs and ray guns and tiny hand held bleeping devices that scarred flickering images into their eyeballs.

Steam trains arrived in the white heat of the late revolution, at such a speed that the Croydon Canal which briefly once stretched from the Thames and down through South East London, including a fledgling area known as Brockley, was drained no sooner than it was finished, and sleepers of oak lain down where briefly water had flowed. Every morning I stand watching the electric sparks in the cold air when it could have been slowly defrosting, wearily turning water.

Things change. Sometimes they change as slowly as the churning silt at the bottom of the sinisterly grey canal and other times at the speed of a charging locomotive. But change, they will.

For many years the canal system fell into disrepair through lack of use and poor maintenance, but as interest in floating along in particularly shaped boats flourished the network has been slowly restored as a tourist attraction. The towpaths and locks repaired and refitted in a systematic programme delivered, in part, by a friend of mine who, by curious coincidence, also has access to canal barge. There is something delightful about floating along through a summer’s afternoon with just the quiet of another time’s world following you. No point in hurrying, no point in rushing. You’ll get there when you get there.

But canals also hide secrets. Two bloated and drowned bodies, for instance, near where my parents live. True story, apparently. My great grandmother was asked by the local doctor to keep an eye on the survivors lest they choose to go the same way.

Why did she do it? Well, there are many reasons why a pretty young girl decides there is only one final solution, but only one reason that was ever likely to keep the curtain twitchers chattering through the generations.

And him? Well he had a reputation as a boozer. His wife would go to the building sites, where he laid bricks and smeared cement, to collect his wages before it all disappeared into the till of the Red Lion. But why did he follow his daughter to her watery end? Guilt? Grief? Despair? A bit of all, perhaps, and maybe, just maybe, the whispered rumour may have held a pittance of truth.

Who knows? Only the canal and it isn’t telling, preferring to leave half-remembered tales until no-one’s left to care, but the glittering sunlight on the thick surface.

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